I worked at the old Service Merchandisedepartment store chain my senior year in high school and through most of college.

One of my favorite tasks was the time I volunteered to be a secret shopper, which entailed going to area stores and observing operations and customer service under the guise of a regular customer.

The secret shopper role was enlightening and showed the company that customers, for the most part, were receiving a high level of service (not so sure about the one store where employees were seen sliding down the famed Service Merchandise conveyor belt).

The memory of my secret shopper days was triggered by a story Mingledorff’s Chairman of the Board Bud Mingledorff told at the recent HARDI annual conference in Orlando, Fla.

Mingledorff, prior to introducing keynote speaker and Netflix co-founder Mark Randolph, revealed his company took the secret shopper idea to the next level by creating a contracting company, complete with service truck, inventory and licensing, and became a customer of his own HVACR distributorship. You can’t get a much closer look at your company’s customer service than that.

His innovative anecdote was far from the only talk about the importance of customer service during the HARDI gathering at the JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes. The Air Conditioning Contractors of America hosted one of the breakout sessions and shared results of a survey it conducted regarding its members’ opinions on distributor and manufacturer relations.

Answering the question to what extent do ACCA contractors find HVACR distributors to be a help or hindrance in daily operations, 76.1% of respondents gave a favorable answer — only 21.4% labeled the distributors they deal with valuable partners, while 54.7% answered they usually are helpful.

The same question was asked regarding a distributor’s territory manager. In this instance the number dropped to only 57% positive. Forty-three percent responded usually helpful, while only 14% labeled territory managers as being valuable partners.

ACCA members also were asked whether HVACR manufacturers are helpful or a hindrance in daily contractor operations. This number dropped to 57.6% of respondents having a favorable reaction (only 14.6% termed their relationships with manufacturers as a valuable partnership). In response to whether a contractor purposefully deemphasized an equipment brand for a specific reason, nearly 58% of respondents replied yes.

Later in the survey, ACCA members were asked what would make placing an order with a distributor easier and 52.1% answered a responsive territory manager.

Along the same lines, availability and responsiveness rank at the top of the charts for ACCA members in terms of the most important attributes for a distributor salesperson. Besides price, nearly 33% of respondents say lack of timely customer service and support would be a major reason they stop buying from a specific distributor. Delivery and/or order inaccuracy ranked second at 19.2%.

These numbers, while not terrible, certainly leave room for improvement, which leads into the question posed to ACCA members on factors that determine whether or not they will work with a particular distributor. The most common answer to that question, by a sizeable margin, was customer service — 73.4% of respondents view customer service as extremely important with technical support, inventory management and equipment brand rounding out the top four answers.

When asked to rank what distributor services they find the most important respondents listed order accuracy at the top followed by price, technical training, access to OEM technical support and fill rates.

The survey concluded by asking members what is the one thing they wish distributors would change about how they do business with them. The top four responses are telling: 1) Remember who the customer is; 2) Stop listening so much to the manufacturers and more to the contractor; 3) Focus on the total relationship and realize that if I thrive, you thrive (particularly true in the co-op marketing programs); and 4) Sales reps being more responsive to the resolution of problems.

While I wouldn’t necessarily call this a cry for help, these are eye-opening numbers in an industry where exemplary customer service, more times than not, is what separates a distributor from its competitors.

How would you rank the customer service level in your company? If you think your numbers are anywhere in the neighborhood of these, please make it a priority and a New Year’s resolution to examine ways you can improve the customer experience for the folks who have chosen to do business with you.